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Identify polytheism (the belief that there are many gods) as the religious belief of the people in Mesopotamian civilizations.


Focus Question: How were religious beliefs constructed in the ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia?


This page examines the religious practices of Mesopotamian civilizations as a context for the broader study of world religions.
Polytheism
Gods and Goddesses
Ishtar
Women in Ancient Mesopotamia
Teaching Resources

Screen Shot 2018-01-03 at 2.30.48 PM.pngFor more information on the development of religion, see AP World History 2.1.

Polytheism


Click here for a brief and detailed overview of polytheism. Here is a chart of the differences between polytheism and monotheism.

timeline2_rus.svg.pngHere and here are an overview and timeline of Mesopotamian civilization.

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For an overview, see Gods, Goddesses, Demons & Monsters from the British Museum.

Religious_Symbols-ani.gif
Religious_Symbols-ani.gif
See also Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia from the Ancient History Encyclopedia

See the Story of the gods of Mesopotamia here.

The Sumerian civilization was polytheistic (believing in more than one god) and was consequently succeeded by the Babylonians and Assyrians, both of whom adopted the polytheistic beliefs. Many of the gods were similar among civilizations; however, stories and gods were added.

Examining religious practices in the ancient world is a foundation for the study of great monotheistic world religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

external image Fertile_Crescent_map.png

Bull statuette, bronze inlaid with silver. Early Dynastic III, archaic Mesopotamia
Bull statuette, bronze inlaid with silver. Early Dynastic III, archaic Mesopotamia






















As defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, polytheism is the “doctrine or belief that there is more than one god; worship of several gods.”
  • Most ancient civilizations believed in a group of gods and goddesses that were characters in myths that served to explain natural phenomena (like thunder, or death), and establish moral codes.
  • Often, would be a dominant god or goddess within these groups. For example, the Ancient Greeks believed that Zeus was the head of the gods. In Norse mythology, Odin was the greatest god.
  • For the Sumerians, An, the god of air and sky, was the preeminent god. (UPenn Museum).

Mesopotamian religion states that fighting created life.
  • The fighting was fresh and salt water in chaos.
  • A male god, Apsu emerged from the fresh water, and a female god, Tiamat, emerged from the salt water. All other gods descended from these main gods.
  • Apsu did not like the younger gods, and planned to kill them. Tiamat warned them, and the younger gods killed Apsu, and from his body created the earth. However, this created more fighting, mainly Tiamat fighting against the younger gods. The god Marduk eventually killed her. With her body, he created the sky and from the body of her helper, Quingu, he created humans, designed to be helpers for the gods. Click here for more.Marduk.jpg
The Sumerians lived in Mesopotamia from 2900-1800 B.C. in political entities called "city-states."
  • These city-states were clusters of cities independent from each other's rule. Each city-state had a patron, or protecting god or goddess (list of gods and goddesses and their patron city-state).
  • This god or goddess was worshiped at the temple in the center of the city, which formed the focal point of local life in each city-state.
  • One of the most important parts of these temples was the tall tower called the ziggurat, meaning "Holy Mountain."

325px-Ancient_ziggurat_at_Ali_Air_Base_Iraq_2005.jpg
Reconstructed facade of the Great Ziggurat of Ur, Nasiriyah, Iraq.

This god or goddess was worshiped at the temple in the center of the city, which formed the focal point of local life in each city-state. In each temple, the innermost room was dedicated to the god or goddess of the temple. This room was decorated and contained a statue of the relevant god or goddess. On occasion, the statues in the temple would visit each other, meaning the humans would carry the statues to neighboring city-states. There were seven great city-states, each with its own king and a ziggurat.

According to ancient legend, the Sumerians originally came from the mountains where they believed the gods resided. In order to stay close to these gods after migrating to the Fertile Crescent, these ziggurats were constructed so the priests could serve the needs of the gods (Check out this page or here for more pictures of ziggurats).

In addition, food and resources went to the gods first (really, to the priests at the temples) while the remainder was then given to the city-state residents. Because each city-state’s god guarded over it and its people, each city-state was sacred. In this sense, the Sumerians thought that the gods and goddesses owned these cities.

Click here for a short news clip from MSNBC about polytheism in modern Greece.

Gods and Goddesses


Sumerian gods and goddesses represented parts of the natural world and were anthropomorphic, which means they resembled humans (UPenn Museum, Ancient History Encyclopedia). There were four principle gods in Ancient Sumer:
  • An: god of the skyram in the thicket.jpg
  • Enki: god of the earth, as well as rivers and water
  • Enlil: god of the wind
  • Ninhursaga: goddess of soil, mountains and plants

Other, lesser gods included
  • Utu: god of the sun
  • Nannar: god of the moon
  • The lesser gods were celestial bodies, considered to be An’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (Ancient History Encyclopedia)


The Sumerians were followed in Mesopotamia by the Akkadians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians, all of whom followed similar gods and goddesses (History for Kids).

An important thing to note about the civilizations of Mesopotamia (Sumer, Akkadia, Babylon, Assyria) is that the gods associated with each civilization were successive deities of the last civilization.
  • The pantheon of Mesopotamia and the gods and goddesses with in that pantheon evolved with the each new civilization
  • Old gods took on new roles, becoming lesser characters in the stories of later civilizations
  • The young gods of Sumer and Akkadia, such as Marduk, who had small roles early on would take on bigger roles within the Mesopotamian pantheon. Marduk rose to be the patron of Babylon at the cites height of power. (Marduk)

game_icon.svg.pngGame about the Babylonian god, Marduck with some additional resources. Another game from the British Museum about protecting the Assyrian king from demon.

AN/ANU, Mesopotamian Sky-God
Image result for anu mesopotamian sky god bull
Image result for anu mesopotamian sky god bull


  • AN is the sky-god in the Mesopotamian pantheon and is known as the "father of the gods" and has partial credit for creating the universe.
  • He was the most prominent of the gods, like Zeus in the Greek pantheon, until the Babylonians made Marduk their patron, elevating him the top.
  • And do to prominent position among the gods we was worshiped in many cities. This is unlike other gods that were usually favored in only one city, that god being that cities patron.
  • Unlike other gods there are no certain anthropomorphic depictions of AN, they all differ in some way. His only certain symbol is a horned crown, sometimes shown resting on a throne and his animal is the bull. (Depiction above is labeled AN due to the Horned Crown being worn)

Link to more on AN/ANU here.

Female_Rose.pngIshtar

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"Burney Relief, Queen of the Night," from Babylonia

  • One very prominent goddess for all of them was Ishtar, or Inanna. She was a fertility goddess, like many female goddesses in the ancient world.
  • In one myth, when Gilgamesh would not love Ishtar, she killed his friend Enkidu.
  • In another story, created to explain the seasons, Ishtar kills her son Tammuz. When she does, the whole earth dies. Ishtar goes to her sister Allatu, goddess of the underworld, and begs her to let Tammuz come back.
  • As in the Greek myth about Persephone, Tammuz is only allowed to come back from the underworld for spring and summer—thus explaining how the earth “dies” every year in fall and winter.

View of the Ishtar gate.
View of the Ishtar gate.

Click here for a description of the goddess Ishtar with a short interactive quiz.

Click here for information from the Louvre about a stele of Ishtar.

Neo-Babylonian Art: Ishtar Gate and Processional Way describes one of the gates to the city of Babylon

Women in Ancient Mesopotamia

womens history.jpgThe University of Chicago provided a short background of the role of women in Ancient Mesopotamia. Their likenesses were many times placed inside the temples within these city-states.

womens history.jpgQuality information with numerous links to religion, the role of women, and inventions in Ancient Mesopotamia




Other Resources for Learning about Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses


game_icon.svg.pngThe mythology of Mesopotamia was very complex and varied—it even included demons and monsters. For more information, and to play a game that helps Mesopotamian gods and goddesses get back home, click here.

Multimedia.pngClick here for an interactive look on creation myths. Just click Sumerian or Babylonian on the world map for myths relevant to this region.
Multimedia.pngThis short video clip provided connections to Ancient Sumer and the importance of religion in their society, as well as some human history.
Multimedia.pngThis is a short video clip that clearly explains the religious beliefs of ancient Sumerians in the view of a young Sumerian girl. Drawn as a cartoon for kid friendly viewing.

Click here for a complete list of all of the Mesopotamian gods and goddesses.

lessonplan.jpgClick here for project ideas on Mesopotamian geography, society, and achievements.



Additional Links


Multimedia.pngThe British Museum has information and interactive resources on many topics of Mesopotamia

A clear PDF chart of the major gods of Ancient Mesopotamia. A solid printout to supplement any lesson of Ancient Mesopotamia and religion.

game_icon.svg.png Fun little quiz on religion in Mesopotamia.

Games:


Book Suggestions
ancient mes.jpg Ancient Mesopotamia, by Don Nardo



Cited Links

http://www.historyguide.org/ancient/lecture2b.html
A summary of Mesopotamian history, including a section on city-states and their gods; and gods’ relationships to people.

http://www.crystalinks.com/ziggurat.html
Provided pictures of ziggurats in Ancient Mesopotamia

http://www.historyforkids.org/learn/westasia/religion/monotheism.htm
For a comparison of monotheism and polytheism, a time line of early cultures, and good books on the history of religion.

http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/gods/home_set.html
Pictures of the Gods, Goddesses, Demons and Monsters of Ancient Mesopotamia

http://www.penfield.edu/webpages/jgiotto/onlinetextbook.cfm?subpage=1525827
Provided pictures of Gods and information on ziggurats.